The Okanagan Valley. The name alone certainly has a ring to it. Jump on a plane (or two) to get there and you won’t be disappointed. At least not according to Janet Harrison, founder of the People’s Choice Wine Awards, who not only enjoyed a memorable trip to Canada’s British Columbia, home of the Okanagan Valley, but has come back keen to get as many people in the trade to go and discover its beauty and exciting and dynamic winemakers for themselves.
There really is something for everyone in the Okanagan Valley. When you are not taking in the jaw dropping views there are plenty of head turning wines to taste and wineries to visit.
Not a huge amount has been written about Okanagan Valley wines for two very good reasons: firstly it takes a while (and a couple of small propeller planes) to get there from the UK; and secondly the area is very much a ‘new kid on the block’ in terms of winemaking.
Many of the wineries have emerged in the last 10 years or so, with some of the oldest dating back to the late sixties. The soils are varied, depending on the area. Granite is clearly visible, there are also volcanic gravels and some areas are very sandy.
Despite having a short growing season, they have long daylight hours in the summer, when it can get surprisingly hot. However, the temperatures at night fall dramatically, hence the reason many of their wines have fantastic acidity.
Despite Canada’s reputation, ice wine isn’t something they want to discuss. They are keen to move on and show the world what else they can produce in this bijoux and beautiful area. Which is quite a lot! Generally speaking, Alsace styles dominate in the north, Burgundy varieties in the west and Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the south.
Do(n’t) mention the ice wine…
Whilst no-one wants to mention IW, I thought I would. Enter Boutique winery Pentage in Penticton, situated towards the south of the region. Founded and run by Paul Gardner and Julie Rennie, it makes the unique Roussanne ice wine for Rebel Pi, owned by Jackie Fast (better known for her appearance on BBC’s The Apprentice).
I loved visiting this couple who literally built the winery into the side of a huge granite rock formation, which looks like something out of a James Bond movie. The views, at the front towards the lake, are to die for (which should be a Bond film title but, sadly, isn’t).
Gardner’s low-yield cultivation strategy produces top quality grapes making premium, limited release, hand-crafted wines. He experiments with many grape varieties including those from a plot dedicated to his ‘Dirty Dozen’ (his words not mine), 12 varieties grown on one graduating slope from the lakeside.
It was a fascinating trip and we went away with a fabulous frizzante ice wine made from Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay and Muscat – its not often you can say that!
One of the oldest properties (dating back to 1963) belongs to Quails Gate – a classy establishment. If you’ll bear with me on the film analogy, anything directed by James Cameron (a safe pair of hands and each wine is likely to be a hit).
The site consists of a fabulous winery, restaurant and accommodation situated in West Kelowna and has another stunning backdrop overlooking the lakeside. Selected wines are available from Berkmann Wine Cellars in the UK and this is a great place to start if you are curious about Canadian wine. The 2016 Chardonnay and 2017 Pinot Noir Reserve were stand-outs for me. I also enjoyed their Pinot Gris during a delicious lunch at their restaurant. The food was so good I went back the day after.
Much praise has been heaped on Okanagan Crush Pad with its Haywire, Narrative and Free Form brands and with very good reason. Imported by Red Squirrel Wines, in the UK. The winery itself is like a playground for composite lovers. They have an amazing selection of funky painted concrete eggs and cylinders, as well as amphoras too. If Willy Wonka made wine?
Founded in 2005, the venture includes a state-of-the-art 40,000 case winery, 320-acres of vineyard and farmland, headed up Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie.
The sparkling wines we tried from Haywire are stunning. We were lucky enough to try ‘The Bub’ (a pet name for the daughter of one of the owners) which is made using the traditional method. The vintage Bub 2013, with 50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend, was my favourite sparkler. Other delights included their 2017 Chardonnay, with no oak, minimal sulphites and no fining (I’ve circled ‘gorgeous’ in my notes), the Free Form Vin Gris, a white wine made from red grapes (in this case 100% pinot noir) and Haywire Canyonview Pinot Noir 2014.
Winemaker Matt Dumayne and his team create wines from organic grapes, using native yeast for fermentation and minimal intervention, hence a perfect fit with the Red Squirrel philosophy. We certainly encountered some delightful chickens roaming around the vineyards and I took a little bit of Haywire with me when I left (if you know what I mean). I can vouch that chickens are great for fertilising soils.
Full of experiments
Wineries are popping up in the Okanagan Valley all the time and are experimenting with different grape varieties, blends and the latest winemaking technology – because they can. I tried some great whites with skin contact and a delicious ‘Maury style’ sweetie too. There really is so much choice.
It is an exciting time for them and a great time for us to discover a relatively new winemaking area. They don’t have a huge amount of space, so volumes will always be relatively limited, making the wines rare and the ‘story behind the label’ interesting for consumers.
Whilst most winemakers sell their wines locally, there are those who are keen to build an international reputation, which is great news for us as we will hopefully be seeing more of these wines imported to the UK. Either way you should go, you really should.
Okanagan Valley Wines are more ‘art house’ than ‘mainstream’ and may always be so, but that doesn’t mean they can’t produce ‘blockbuster’ wines of real substance.